Cisco overhauls Webex with an eye on seamless collaboration, smart hybrid work

In the same week Cisco announced its acquisition of two companies, the unified communications company also unveiled a variety of changes and updates to its Webex platform, boasting it would “deliver a Webex experience that is 10x better than in-person [interactions].”

Falling into three over-arching categories — seamless collaboration, smart hybrid work, and intelligent customer experiences — the changes are designed to address the needs of a rapidly evolving workplace and better position the company against communications rivals. 

“Webex enables a shift towards hybrid working and less reliance on geography-based hiring, opening the global economy and giving everyone a seat at the table — no matter where the table is,” said Jeetu Patel, senior vice president and general manager of security and applications, during a keynote speech Tuesday at Cisco’s WebexOne event.

Webex meeting updates

In a briefing, Patel said Cisco wants to “power an inclusive future for all” and argued that many of the new features on Webex aren’t available on competitors’ platforms. Among the changes and new features:

  • Webex meeting layouts will soon be customizable, offering participants options beyond gallery or speaker view.
  • New templates allow users to select the type of meeting they want to host beyond traditional 30-minute time blocks. (Quick-sync meetings can be limited to a few minutes, with a visible countdown clock; round-table meetings allow users to speak uninterrupted for a set time limit in order.)
  • Higher-quality video meetings that benefit from noise cancellation, speech enhancement, transcriptions and closed captioning, real-time translation in nine different languages, and more immersive sharing capabilities.
  • Finally, in-meeting gestures can be powered by body movement recognition.

While some features are available now, most will roll out next year — including an option for bigger meetings. With Webex Events native live streaming, users will be able to host up to 100,000 active participants.

Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research, was bullish on the changes. 

“The noise cancellation and speech enhancements greatly improve meetings, not just at home but in the office,” Kerravala said. “Everyone has been in the meeting with the loud typist in an office, the person eating chips or the mower going at the person’s home when they are working from home. Noise cancellation lets people work almost anywhere and not disrupt the meetings.”

He also praised the customizable layouts and the gesture recognition as smart additions, saying they should help drive greater meeting interactions and contributions.

Calling and messaging

Seperately, the company made changes designed to position the platform as more of a direct competitor to Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. Users of the new Webex will now be able to call, meet and message in one app via Webex Teams.

Bringing Webex Meetings and Teams together was “long overdue,” Kerravala said. “Cisco has long talked about maintaining continuous collaboration, and this is a big step in doing that.”

Along with the new messaging capabilities, Cisco is adding AI features to Webex that allow it to learn what projects, spaces and people are most important, and then elevate them for better visibility. Those features arose from the acquisitions of Voicea, BabbleLabs and Accompany; Cisco said it has spent more $1 billion on AI technology to underpin its Webex Assistant and Webex Graph software.

Webex Calling will get new calling plans and call-routing features such as video-on-hold and interactive voice response; that makes it easier to escalate voice calls to video meetings, the company said. And in early 2021, users will get Webex message pinning, along with the ability to automatically send recorded meetings to specified groups and individuals.

Contact center improvements

In other announcements, the company touted contact center improvements, a strengthened partner ecosystem and three new hardware devices.

For contact centers, Cisco has expanded it platform to support businesses of all sizes, meaning the system can field customer service requests to thousands of virtual agents. It is also implementing a new microservices architecture to enable greater customization, and incorporating text and social channels. 

As for the company’s app ecosystem, Cisco said its new App Hub will make integrations with third-party services more unified. The hub allows meeting participants to find and use integrations with services such as Box, Dropbox, Salesforce, ServiceNow and Workplace from Facebook.

“Regardless of the application someone is using, they can work seamlessly with Webex,” Patel said.

In terms of hardware, Cisco unveiled a new Webex Desk Camera, Webex Desk Hub and Webex Desk. Though Zoom and Microsoft have also released videoconferencing and communication hardware, with Zoom for Home and Duo, respectively, neither has seen much uptake. Still, Kerravala said hardware is an important part of communication.

“Cisco still has the largest install base, which is why they haven’t seen the same kind of growth [as other videoconferencing vendors],” he said. “However, they did take a backseat this year to a few other vendors as consumers flocked to Zoom and others. I think these features can help Cisco catch up and pass the field as it changes the way we think about meetings.”